When Wisconsin outdoor columnist Mark Walters began to notice that fewer people, especially children, were enjoying outdoor interests, he voiced his concern about this perceived disconnection from nature in his column found in several newspaper across the state.
In 2006, he challenged his readers to help him form an organization dedicated to introducing children to outdoor pursuits. Readers in three areas of Wisconsin responded to Walters’ challenge and met with him to discuss the logistics of forming a youth outdoor mentoring organization. It culminated in the original Kids and Mentors Outdoors (KAMO) group.
“We just found that there was not enough opportunity for kids to get outdoors,” said Mick Mlinar, president of the Chapter in Florence County in the northeast region of the state. “And there are just as many adults who don’t get outside either.”
KAMO is a group that provides Wisconsin communities with outdoor education activities for children and families. Jim Kurz, acting president of the Indianhead Chapter in Ladysmith, was one of the original three to respond to Walters’ call to action. Another was Mlinar.
“It took us awhile to get it started,” said Mlinar. “We didn’t have any money and liability insurance was the biggest hurdle.”
But despite the hurdles, KAMO’s charter Chapters began operating near Baraboo, Florence, and Ladysmith in 2007. The Meadow Valley Chapter joined in 2008, followed by Coulee in 2012 and Lake Wisconsin in 2015.
KAMO’s stated mission is to give children access to a variety of experiences that should help them develop an appreciation for nature, a stewardship ethic and a knowledge of outdoor traditions to carry forward. Soon enough, these children, known as KAMOKIDS, would mature into adults with the lifelong potential to enjoy practicing their outdoor skills, pass their skills on to others, and become stewards of our natural resources.
KAMO Chapters recruits and screens adult mentors from a pool of volunteers who have an outdoor passion, a desire to share their knowledge and skills, and a commitment to today’s children. These mentors plan, organize and finance outdoor-themed adventures including nature walks, wildlife viewing, canoeing, fishing, archery, camping, hunting, orienteering, trapping, bow fishing, skiing, snowshoeing and biking. These activities are free to the KAMOKIDS, who are usually between the ages of 9 and 16 and often come from family backgrounds in which there is little or no opportunity for an outdoor connection.
The Indianhead Chapter of KAMO meets the third Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at Pioneer Bank, 200 Miner Ave. West, Ladysmith. But Chapter presidents are quick to say that the reason this program works, is not due to the number of Chapter members though they are always welcome. Mlinar said it’s the community support that allows excursions and events to happen.
“Outside volunteers are key to the success of our events,” Mlinar said. “A lot of people don’t have the time or want to attend monthly meetings.”
One example of community members coming together to help include a group of guys who lend the use of their pontoons for Kids Hooked on Fishing. The event sees 30-45 kids from 4 to 8 years old trying fishing for the first time in the northeastern part of the state. Mlinar said it’s the first time many of these kids ever get the chance to hold a rod and reel.
The Indianhead Chapter just completed a 2-day river trip down the Chippewa River from the bridge on Senesac Road to Imalone bridge on Hwy. A, staying overnight on a friend’s property south of Hwy. D.
“It’s no little feat to plan a trip like this,” said Kurz. “The last one we did was 3 years ago. Overnight trips like this are infrequent, but it’s something the kids enjoy.”
The number and content of activities varies for each chapter and appeal to all ages, but KAMO’s chapters typically like to take in children beginning at the ages of 9 to 11 and work with them over the next several years.
“Generally, most of our KAMOKIDS are between 9 and 15,” said Kurz.
Parents, siblings, and friends of KAMOKIDS are encouraged to participate in KAMO activities with a parent or grandparent often delivering participants to these events. The idea is for those participants to remain with the group over a period of several years so that their appreciation for nature can be more fully developed.
It’s for the kids, right?
Mentors benefit from the interaction as much as, if not more than, the kids themselves.
“I enjoy being around kids because it keeps me in a younger perspective,” said Mlinar. “Without kids, you end up a crotchety old man, surrounded by other crotchety old men. Are we changing people’s lives? I don’t know.”
Floyd Kahl, KAMO mentor for the Indianhead Chapter and former Rice Lake resident, thinks so.
“There is no price you can put on watching a kid’s face light up when they catch a fish for the first time,” said Kahl, who helps with numerous outdoor activities in conjunction with KAMO and other entities.
“There’s so much enjoyment for me outdoors,” said Kahl. “I don’t like to be cooped up.”
Kahl went onto say that a kid’s experience outdoors turns a light on for some who have never had an opportunity to camp or do much outside. After the river trip last weekend, one boy asked Kahl if they do the trip every year and if so, he declared he would definitely be back next year. He was going to tell his friends about it.
“That’s the light,” said Kahl.
Columnist and KAMO state president and organizer Walters said that the group events are fun, but the one-on-ones are his favorite.
“I like it,” said Walters of the organization itself. “It really truly makes a difference for everyone involved.”
KAMO mentors undergo a thorough background check before becoming mentors. Many are avid outdoors persons, but some learn along the way too.
KAMO activities are driven by mentor availability and interest and can include a myriad of activities.
Mark Brown, chapter president for the Coulee Region, plans several activities throughout the year, often in conjunction with Big Brothers Big Sisters of La Crosse. Events can range anywhere from sledding, winter camping, ice fishing, hiking, outdoor-themed movies, canoe trips, archery and summer camping and fishing.
The Indianhead Chapter offers hunting opportunities to kids to take them through hunter’s safety and youth hunts, archery, canoeing trips and any other events that incorporate the outdoors.
Kurz is teaching archery at the Trails End Girl Scout camp near Bruce this week and Floyd will be doing the same during the Rusk County Junior Fair on Aug. 10-11. KAMO also pairs with North Cedar Academy, a boarding school in Ladysmith, for pontoon fishing days.
“We’re busy every weekend,” said Kahl. But there’s nothing he’d rather be doing except maybe exploring the Boundary Waters, where he takes a group as often as he can, winter or summer.
After a recent 2-week trip to the Boundary Waters in June with kids ages 7-65, one boy said, “When I get home, I’m going to appreciate what I have so much more.”
“We get the kids back to the very basics of life,” said Kahl. “They can’t just turn on a switch to get water and electricity. I love helping kids experience that for the first time.”
All KAMO chapters are always looking for more mentors and kids to participate, as well as community support in any way.